Museums, along with hairdressers and pubs, have been allowed to open from Saturday 4th July in England. Whilst many may have been rushing to book their table at their local boozer (I will be doing this also in due course!) I rushed to book for one of the few museums that I heard was opening – Blists Hill Victorian Town.
Talk of the Town
Blists Hill Victorian Town is tucked into the Ironbridge gorge area in Madeley, Telford which is about a 45 minute drive north-west of Birmingham. It was a beautiful sunny day for a traditional fish and chips, a wander round the town and fairground. Also to soak in the history of small working class towns in the Midlands during the Victorian Era. The ‘Birthplace of Industry’ is the tag line for the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group. The town takes you back to life in 1900 where many men were employed in coal mines, blast furnaces and as blacksmith, producing coal for steam power and domestic warmth, cast iron for machine and chain making.
A Butcher, a Banker and a Candlestick Maker
So what kinds of shops and businesses were there to service working class towns? Blists Hill has a whole host of businesses, a couple were closed such as the bakers for public and staff safety reasons I’m sure, but most were open. This included Annie Pritchard Confectioner, a Printing Shop and a Market Hall with ‘Fine Goods from the Empire’. A mention does get made in the map & guide for the town about the Empire. It states that Britain benefited greatly from the Empire which was built on a ‘system of economic exploitation and structural racism’. This is a brief but welcome addition to engaging with the colonial history of Britain and how it is not a glorious part of our past but a difficult and exploitative part that continues to impact negatively on people of colour around the world and in Britain to the present day.
There is also a bank to service the town, although only the most wealthy in 1900 would have held bank accounts. I discussed with the costumed interpreters (who were protected behind a sheet of Plexiglas) about the lack of use of physical money in today’s society, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. As well as costumed guides, including a Victorian policeman, complete with black cloak and bicycle (and also a truncheon not doubt!), there were information boards in most businesses that gave you a little more added detail. There were also a number of posters and signs reminding people to keep to a 2 metre distance from museum staff and other visitors, with some restrictions on numbers of people allowed into smaller shops. Also a one way system was implemented were possible, and if not possible, shops were roped off so you could peer in but not walk into.
This did not take away from the overall enjoyment of the day, it was so great to be in a museum again! All the staff were friendly and made you feel comfortable and safe with the extra safety measures in place.
All in a Days Work
As well as focusing on what kinds of dangerous and low paid work working-class men would have undertaken, there was a school where their children would have been educated. In 1899, the school leave age was 12, the Fisher Education Act in 1918 made secondary education compulsory to the age of 14. After leaving school, these young people would we expected to earn money for the family. Many as young as 11 would follow their fathers into the mines, young women would often look after younger siblings, help their mothers with domestic duties such as cooking and laundry, also earning money by making rag rugs, sewing or perhaps finding work as a domestic servant in a middle class home.
One poster that caught my eye is below – the news of a mining disaster in Madeley, the nearest town to where the museum is. In 1864, 9 men and boys lost their lives as chains fell 700 feet from the top of the shaft to the bottom where they were working. This is a brutal and horrific death, the youngest victim was 12 and the oldest 52, the oldest may have been working for 40 years in those dark pits. The first Mines Act was brought into force in 1842 following a investigation and damning report into the accidents, long hours and potential diseases miners were susceptible to. But as you can see, over 20 years later in the 1860s, horrific accidents were still happening due to the dangerous conditions still prevalent in the work.
Votes for Women
The printmakers had obviously been busy, as well as making lots of posters reminding people to keep 2 metres (also known as 6 feet and 6 3/4 inches) away from staff and other visitors, there were also many posters proclaiming ‘Votes for Women’. Despite this, I felt it wasn’t really elaborated on any further, it suggests that in working class towns in England that was an awareness and hunger for universal suffrage. But would working class women be organising talks from prominent suffrage movement leaders or talking and campaigning themselves on the matter? On looking at the Ironbridge website I found some detail and exhibitions that have been done in the recent past on women’s suffrage, particularly Vote or No Vote in 2018 for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.**
I bought a couple of postcards from the printmakers, a pack of bluebell bath salts and fudge from the sweet shop to remind me of the trip (and to dip into on my way home!)
I would definitely recommend a visit, just make sure you book ahead!
Ironbridge Gorge Museums: https://www.ironbridge.org.uk
**I do not own this image.